Friday, November 26, 2010

It's ALL holy ground!

A colleague forwarded a youtube video to me and I've just watched it. Youtube has videos on and for everything under the sun - some good, some not so good, and some - well - horrid. But THIS is so worth the 5 minutes it will take you to watch it.

I don't know a lot about the background but apparently there's an organization - the Knight's Foundation - that has committed to inspire 1000 Acts of Culture across the United States over the next three years - a small variation of the random acts of kindness idea, but in this case it was both culture and kind!

This was one amazing flash event!

The Opera Company of Philadelphia (some 600 voices) gathered at Macy's Department Store - they were dispersed through the LARGE crowd - and at precisely 12 noon on October 30, accompanied by the largest pipe organ in the world, they sang Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. The shoppers - the hordes of them - stopped what they were doing (for the most part) to appreciate this spontaneous concert - to marvel at the acoustical magnificence of this department store, temporarily transformed into a cathedral. Cameras and cell phones came out in an effort to "capture" the moment. I for one am sure glad that this event was video taped and posted on youtube.

I sat at my kitchen table with tears pouring down my cheeks, not only because of the beauty of Handel's masterpiece, but because of the profound way that this "performance" reminds me that it is ALL holy ground... Even Macy's Department Store, an icon of consumerism, can host another kind of worship.

Sometimes we are so intent on our other activities - the day to day tasks, large and small - that we forget that there IS a Holy God and that wherever our feet might take us, is holy space, despite surface appearances.

You can see the video at

THANK YOU Opera Company of Philadelphia and Knight Foundation!!!!

If you're interested in reading more about the 1000 Random Acts of Culture initiative, check out

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Faith matters

For the past few months - especially since attending the World Religions Summit in Winnipeg in June - I've been thinking a lot about the place of faith in our private and public lives. I've thought about my own journey of faith - hardly a linear or predictable path and certainly one which I suspect is yet very much incomplete - and I've also been thinking (somewhat obsessively!) about the complexities of work, travel or study across cultures and across spiritual borders.

I remember coming back from my first short trip to Kenya in December of 2004 and thinking that, as much as I'd appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to see a land and a people that are so very different from me and my home, I would NEVER completely understand the history and culture and people of the place. I felt a stranger - an alien - out of place and out of sync. It was unsettling.

And in my various journeys since then, I have continued to wrestle with this feeling that ALL of our communication - ALL of our efforts to walk with our partners - ALL of our good intentions - are somehow just a little out of sync. It's like a movie where the audio track doesn't quite line up with the video track. And just when we think we've got it right - when we are speaking the same language, both practically and proverbially - there it is again. A subtle disconnect where we're reminded - again - that we don't really get it at all. We are relating through a fog of deeply embedded cultural habits and practices. Even our common conviction that we are united through belief in one God, one faith, one baptism, doesn't protect us from the idiosyncrasies of culture.

And then there are the intentional inter-faith dialogues, where we acknowledge our diversity and our fundamental differences. Some might assume that inter-faith dialogue - by its very definition - necessitates compromise. That listening to the ideas and concerns of those from OTHER faith traditions is somehow a dangerous first step down a slippery slope of indecisiveness and concession. I confess that what I find most disturbing about interfaith dialogue is any tendency to want to bleach out our differences. While it might be helpful to remind ourselves that ALL of our faith traditions are concerned with justice, and at our best we foster attitudes and actions that demonstrate compassion and generosity and peace, these values do not make us the same. So how do we work together around these things while at the same time celebrating and practicing those things which set us apart? How do people of Christian and Jewish and Muslim and Bahai and Hindu and all the rest - including even people of no particular faith - work together to have a positive impact on the social and political and economic and even environmental fabric of our world?

Maybe this is overly simplistic, but I'm thinking that what is most helpful and also most pleasing to God, is for each of us to practice our faith with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength - to pour ourselves into the life of our faith, working with others wherever we can, respecting their spiritual commitments and convictions, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices who serve a purpose and agenda not our own. I think that when we are secure in our faith we can enter into conversation and even relationship with people of other faiths and be enriched in the process. As we learn about other faiths we will understand the things that we have in common and also the things which set us apart. And we will need to pay attention to both.

There is a movement of sorts around a Charter for Compassion which is founded on the idea that "the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves." Sound familiar? I like the Charter in that it calls us to live together in peace, but I'm just a bit uncomfortable in that it MAY have the tendency to reduce our faith to a social prescription for getting along with one another. I would argue that when we live out our faith fully - with passion as well as compassion and with humility as well as determination and conviction - that we will be offering a full expression of our humanity and not one which has been subtly muted for the sake of appearances. When I live up to my potential as a Christian and encounter someone who is living up to his or her potential as a Buddhist or Muslim, etc. I will have nothing to fear and much to learn.

If you're interested in thinking about these things a bit further, I see that the 6th Annual Munk Debate - to be held at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Canada on November 26 at 7pm is on the resolution: "be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world...". Speaking in favor of the resolution will be Tony Blair. Christopher Hitchens will speak against the resolution. For more information see

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Gracism and a Theology of Inclusion

I’ve been part of a small working group for the past 10 years that’s been looking at the issue of racism within our denomination. It’s been an incredible experience - I’ve learned a lot of uncomfortable truths about myself, our denomination and our society. I've learned that racism really does affect us ALL and that we’re participants in racist attitudes and systems, even when we’re not aware of it - even when we don’t have much day to day contact with people of other races or cultures.

I began to notice a lot of points of intersection between the conversations of our working group and observations from other aspects of my work: cross-cultural mission, reducing the stigma of mental illness, helping to protect the vulnerable from abuse... I came across a little book by David Anderson that has helped me to think more clearly about how we might overcome racism, but I think the principles of this book have a much broader application. The title of the book is Gracism - a clever combination of grace - a positive and welcome term - and racism - with all of its negative connotation. Gracism is “the positive extension of favor on other humans based on color, class or culture”. That’s favor, not favoritism. It’s about giving to people what they NEED, not a command to treat everyone the same.

Gracism is not about rights but about authentic love for our neighbor – it requires honesty, vulnerability, sensitivity…

Here are a couple of quotes that will help you see how Anderson defines a gracist:

“This is the heart of the gracist. The one who hears, sees and pays attention to those on the margins – those in the desert – is a gracist.” (pg. 23)
“Are you a gracist? The heart of a gracist extends a helping hand to those who are outside the positive norms of a particular society… gracists build bridges of inclusion for those on the margins.” (pg. 29)

How can you tell if you - or someone else - is a gracist? How can you tell if your faith group or denomination operates out of a gracism mindset? Anderson identifies 7 habits of a gracist:

I will lift you up. I will cover you. I will share with you. I will honor you. I will stand with you. I will consider you. I will celebrate with you.

A pretty impressive list, eh? Isn't that the kind of person we'd like to be? By all accounts, the kind of person that Jesus was when he lived on this earth in human form? The kind of person we are drawn to as we journey through life, with all of its frailties and inconsistencies, its passion and pain?

And just imagine a whole community which embraces and lives out these 7 principles!!! It would be a place of great comfort and healing and a place from which people might be launched into the surrounding territory as ambassadors of hope.

For me, it's a description of what the church - that is, the universal body of believers - ought to be, by its very nature. Gracism creates space for everyone to belong, no matter who they are or what they've done or what they think. It's a place where stones and stone throwers are conspicuously absent. It's a place of great humility. A place where EVERYONE is given the benefit of the doubt - again and again and again. A place of rich diversity and a place where peace passes understanding. A place of great faith. A place of irrepressible hope. A place of unconditional acceptance and love.

Who wouldn't want to be part of a community like that?

If you're interested in finding out more about Gracism, the book, check out this short youtube video with author, David Anderson:

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Maybe it's a little TOO well with my soul...!

The picture shown here is a depiction of the Parable of the Pearl (right) paired with the Hidden Treasure (left) on a stained glass window in Scots' Church, Melbourne.

I've always loved the hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. In case you don't know this hymn, here are the lyrics:

It Is Well With My Soul

When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain: It is well, with my soul, It is well, with my soul, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: If Jordan above me shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, The sky, not the grave, is our goal; Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, Even so, it is well with my soul.

The story behind this hymn is pretty interesting. The lyrics were written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. Spafford was a lawyer from Chicago who suffered a series of calamities, including the loss of his four daughters when the ship they were on went down at sea. His wife was also aboard the ship (the Ville de Havre) but she survived - miraculously - as a plank floated under her unconscious body and kept her afloat until she was rescued.

Upon receiving word of the terrible tragedy (which claimed the lives of a total of 226 people) Spafford boarded the next ship in order to join his distraught wife. The captain of the ship called Spafford to the bridge as they were passing the site at which his daughters had died and then Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote this hymn. I should mention that this was simply the precipitating loss from which the hymn was written - but there were tragic events both before and after this one which give some indication of the depth of Spafford's faith.

All that to say, this has always been for me a powerful hynn. And I've loved to sing it, always feeling that it is a testimony of my faith, regardless of the immediate circumstances of my life. It is well with my soul... There's something profound in this statement. I like this hymn so much that my husband knows that I want it to be sung at my funeral.

Lately I've been thinking that it's a very good funeral hymn, but maybe it's use between now and then may not be such a good thing. Let me explain.

It seems to me that we - and by "we" I really mean "I" but with the suspicion that what is true of me is also true for many others who have been raised in the cultural context of this era and place - have tended to put perhaps too much emphasis on our "personal relationship" with God. This seems perfectly natural - after all, we are each one made in the image of God and each one of us is of inestimable value to God. The health and vibrancy of our relationship with God is quite naturally something to pay attention to. But I'm wondering how much our cultural promotion of individualism might also be at play.

I think that one of our blindspots in Christian thought and practice in North America is our over-emphasis on the individual at the expense of community. If we think for a minute that there might be a "soul" that is not confined to the individual - a social soul or a church soul or a kingdom soul - then there is a disturbing paradox for me. How can it be well with our collective soul when there are so many injustices in our world? And, to take it a step further, maybe our failure to think or feel or act out of our collective soul is a fundamental reason that the church as we know it is not more actively engaged in promoting justice as an expression of our love for our neighbours.

Perhaps the wellness of our collective soul has lulled us into a sense of complacency - a sense that life is hard and that unanticipated perils await us on our journey through this life, but God is good and faithful and he will neither leave us nor forsake us. All of this I think is perfectly true, but in the absence of attention to our collective soul it is easy to think that there is nothing that we need to DO. And yet, as I read the Scriptures, I struggle with this presupposition. I see in the Gospels and in the writings of Paul and other New Testament authors all kinds of direction for putting our faith in a sovereign and good God to good practical use.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (see Luke 19:28-42). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. We often hear this quoted at funerals, but what if Jesus was not talking so much about personal loss and grief, but the grieving of our collective Christian soul over the multitudinous abuses - abuses against the poor and marginalized, against creation, against God, against our own humanity...?

There is a sense in which I long to feel that even in the midst of these kinds of abuse, I can sing to God, proclaiming that I know him well enough to be able to say, it is well with my soul. But I also want to be part of a movement of people who know that God is grieved by the state of our world, and to know him is to share in that grief. Yes - Jesus has shed his own blood for my soul and that gives me great comfort and hope - and one day the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend. BUT we're in this together.

Let's not kid ourselves. God IS grieved by the socially manufactured poverty and the socially acceptable forms of greed and exploitation that are often the basis for worldly "success". Most of us haven't faced the kinds of consecutive tragedies that Horatio Spafford endured leading up to and following the writing of It Is Well With My Soul and perhaps we are a little too quick to claim this hymn as our own testimony when we are actually guilty of twisting and distorting and diminishing the lesson of the pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45-46).

I started this post with the assumption that it was the loss of his four daughters that really inspired Spafford to write this hymn, but maybe this really was just one of a series of events that so demanded his attention that he could finally see through the circumstances of tragedy to behold that pearl of great price. As usual, more questions than answers...!

The big question for me is whether we are in error - and if that error is a small error or a very large error - when we default to thinking of the state of the soulas a fundamentally individual matter as contrasted with a more collective sense of soul - the soul of the body of believers (i.e. the church universal). And, almost as an after thought in this post, now I'm wondering anew about the pearl of great price. What is it exactly and how is it attained? Or is it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Involuntary simplicity...?

Over the last few years I've been conscious of trying to live more simply. But I have to admit that it's not easy and most of the time I fall short of the mark. And it's a pretty elusive mark. How am I to define living simply in this place of such extravagance and abundance and waste? I have absolutely everything that I NEED and pretty much everything that I WANT. I can honestly say that there is really NOTHING - no consumer product - that I need. As I think ahead even, I'm certain that I could get buy quite nicely - probably for years - without buying ANYTHING except food (well, maybe a few more things like gas and insurance and other "staples"). But I also know that I WILL continue to buy - to keep up to date with the latest electronics, fashions, trends, and my own whims.

So I'm thinking about the concept of voluntary simplicity - the self-imposed commitment to consume less. We may think of this as a modern movement but it actually has roots that can be traced back centuries. Many religious traditions have encouraged simplicity for spiritual, social and ecological reasons. The current voluntary simplicity movement is nothing new and for most of us is likely a quite watered down version of ancient practices. So what is the REAL value of voluntary simplicity? Does it help one connect more closely to God? Does it really reduce our ecological footprint in any significant way? Does it contribute to a more just society? Bottom line, what difference does it make if I discipline myself to leave the things that I don't need on the shelf - or increasingly - out of my various online shopping carts? These are not idle questions. I think about them a lot - almost to the point of obsession!

Here's the line of my thinking:

1. consumerism is a serious addiction and most of us (in the western world) have it to some degree. All addictions affect the person who is addicted - obviously - but also people around them, maybe even to the ends of the earth.

2. this addiction DOES have spiritual, ecological and social consequences. On the spiritual level, any addiction is idolatry - it obscures our view of God and hinders our ability to relate to God. We're much more like the rich young ruler than we like to think. If you don't know about the rich young ruler, check out these passages which all give an account of the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus: Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30. From an ecological point of view I think there is no doubt that our addiction to stuff is hazardous to the planet. The earth's resources, as profound as they are, are not limitless and they cannot sustain us - and by us, I do mean all 7 billion of us on the planet - if we continue to plunder and waste them. There really is only ONE earth and - as I've mentioned in frequent previous posts - our current lifestyle is truly unsustainable from a purely ecological perspective. And finally, in terms of social impact and social justice, we in the western world - the one billion of us who control and consume 86% of the earth's resources - are guilty of oppression and exploitation, whether we intend it or not.

So, what to do? Voluntary simplicity is a great place to start, but is it enough? What if one person in one thousand voluntarily reduces our level of consumption? The benefit may be mostly to us - we are freed from the compulsion to buy, to consume, to own, to plunder. We are free to live more authentically - spiritually, ecologically and socially. We find that we have a better quality of life - it's less cluttered by the desires and obsessions that are inherent in any addiction. But at that level - 1/1000 - the ecological and social justice impact may not even be noticeable. I wonder what it would take to get the commitment to voluntary simplicity to a level that IS noticeable - 1 in 100, or 1 in 10 or 1 in 5? What would it take to get to a level of simplicity that humanity is actually able to address the systemic roots of injustice and oppression? And will we ever get there through voluntary commitments?

Moving from voluntary to involuntary simplicity may not be as extreme as it sounds. For instance, there have been times in the not so distant past when gasoline or food was rationed. Compliance was mandated by law and offenders were prosecuted. Nothing voluntary about that. Nobody likes to have their choices restricted, but sometimes it's necessary in order to address the social consequences of our natural bent towards greed and selfishness.

I'll continue to strive for simplicity but honestly, it will be easier for me to comply when public policy forces me to live more simply. So maybe some of my effort should go into supporting public policy that will do just this. In fact, I'd say that we'll know that we're really serious about the simplicity thing when political parties who promise to enforce simplicity measures actually get our votes. This is not a political plug and I'm not an extremist. I know I'm not an extremist because if I were, I'd be much better at leading by example. No, I'm just thinking this through and wrestling with the big picture stuff.

Voluntary compliance is always more appealing than involuntary - or mandated - compliance - but the fact is, the majority world cannot afford to wait for us to coax everyone on board. While we're patting ourselves on the back for taking a few steps towards a simpler life, they are living with the chronic indignities that come with lack of food, water, shelter, sanitation, education and medical care and they are too often dying for lack of these basic necessities.

We can and should and must, continue our individual efforts but we should also support public policy that will force us to live more responsibly and generously. And for those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, this is as much a part of our spiritual discipline and discipleship as prayer and fasting and worship and bible study and compassion.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Advocacy Stand-Off

I have to say that I increasingly find my views and convictions around advocacy out of step with emails that find their way into my inbox. I suspect that we are on the verge of a major stand off in Canada between our federal government and all kinds of advocacy groups. CIDA's de-funding of Kairos late last fall (see for Kairos' fact sheet on this issue) and the more recent indications that the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) will also have their funding slashed - are two important water marks that quantify the chill that is growing between our federal government and prominent advocacy groups.

These groups clearly see it as an important part of their mandate to relentlessly criticize government policy and policy makers for failing to solve the serious global problems which immiserate a billion or more people on this earth. To be clear, I suspect that for many of these agencies the problem begins when the federal government fails to live up to the commitments and promises it makes. The frustration over this - especially as both the leaders and the grass roots members of these organizations literally rub shoulders with the global poor and marginalized whose lives WOULD be made less miserable if governments of the G8 countries would just keep their promises - boils over into a pervasive and seething anger which subsequently influences every advocacy initiative.

It IS frustrating when the failure of so called "wealthy" nations to keep their promises means that the poorest of the world's poor continue to live in abject poverty and without dignity. But let's be realistic. The problems are incredibly complex. Money, though a necessary part of the solution, is only one part, and I would argue, not even the most important part. And when faith-based and other civil society advocacy groups focus on the dollars, we perpetuate the lie that more money can solve the problems. Governments provide a convenient scapegoat but we have to remember that governments are NOT gods. They are not omnipowerful or, omnicompetent (as Bruce Clemenger of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada likes to say).

Governments do what they have to do to maintain their positions of power. They are often hanging onto power by a thin thread. They cannot and will not be able to lead effectively on the global stage if they are vulnerable to a fickle and selfish constituencies at home. The righteous indignation of Canadian advocacy groups - like Kairos, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian chapter of Make Poverty History (to name a few) is but one voice that the government hears. And who do these organizations speak for? How representative are their views? Do they have the support of the business sector? Let's face it, if we seriously expect our governments to put their commitments to the Millennium Development Goals ahead of the pressures for economic growth from the business sectors of their own economies, I think we need to change our tactics - and possibly our hearts.

I cringe when I hear the language of rights and of demands and of anger defining our advocacy and our public voice and presence. I think we mean well. I KNOW we do. I understand - and share - the frustration with policies and policy makers and the feelings of helplessness in the face of such horrendous suffering. But let's not spend so much of our time and resources chasing after vague promises of more money - except when it is programming money that we KNOW is being well spent and making a positive difference for our partners. Let's divert THAT advocacy time and those resources to efforts to change our own cultures and our own constituencies.

When widespread public opinion in our privileged countries champions the causes for which we advocates and social activists are passionate our governments will have the moral authority and political capital to keep their promises - and not just promises to provide money but more importantly to design and implement structural reforms. There are lots of addictions in our societies that will need to be confronted if we are to win over public opinion. We have our work cut out for us!

Friday, July 02, 2010

From Starfish to Whales: When Rescue Efforts are Viewed with Suspicion

In the last post I talked about the little boy who rescued the starfish which had been stranded by the tide. Yesterday I participated in a whale rescue – or I should say, attempted whale rescue. REALLY – I did! My husband and son are commercial fishermen. Amongst other things, they catch juvenile herring in weirs – you would probably recognize them as sardines (an excellent source of calcium and omega 3, by the way!).

Weirs are large stationary traps – they cover about an acre of ocean floor – and they catch herring by being strategically placed in the “fishways” of the herring. That is, over the years, fishermen study the local habits of the herring and then build weirs which are literally “in their way”. According to the tide and the dark and daylight hours, the fish swim in schools into the weir where they find themselves trapped. For the most part the heart shape of the weir keeps them from finding their way out as they circle around and around.

Of course fishermen often catch things in their weirs besides herring – mackerel, dogfish, squid, the occasional blue fin tuna or shark. Seals appreciate the weirs because they provide them with captive meals and snacks virtually 24 hours a day. Rarely, but on occasion, a whale will also find itself inside a weir. They swim in, often oblivious to their surroundings, as they feed on herring or on krill – the small particles for which our area is noted and which make it a productive fishing area.

Years ago fishermen saw a whale in the weir as a minor nuisance and if it didn’t swim out on its own, it was likely to be shot or harpooned and unceremoniously towed out to deep water or to a beach somewhere. That was before whales became endangered and before our fascination with them spawned a cottage industry in whale watching. It was also back in the day before the environmental movement and the emphasis on recycling - back in the day when fishermen threw their pop cans and trash into the ocean. Now, most fishermen most of the time are much more environmentally responsible.

So, a few days ago my husband returned from tending the weir – that is, checking it for herring - with the news that there was a minke whale trapped in the main weir. Minkes are small whales, usually 18-25 feet long when they're mature. The main weir is the part the fish swim into initially. If conditions on the ocean floor permit, the weir will also have a “pound” or holding area. Fish that are caught in the main weir will be “seined” into the pound where they can be held until there’s market – that is, until the one sardine processing company (Connors Bros.) can send a carrier (large boat with a hold for transporting fish to the plant). I realize as I write this that for many of you, this is a whole new language!!

I love watching whales so naturally I was delighted to hear that I would have a chance to visit one at my leisure. My husband was less pleased, having just finished the spring lobster season – two months of 80-90 hour weeks. Nonetheless, yesterday – while others were participating in Canada Day celebrations - we set out around 10am to “free” the whale. My husband and son were in one skiff and my 80 year old mother-in-law and I were in another.

It was a stunning summer day - the kind that makes me wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else. The weir is only a few minutes from the wharf – it’s REALLY beautiful here by the way! Any hope that the whale might have rescued itself was abandoned as soon as we got to the weir and saw it surfacing.

The rescue plan was for us to encourage the whale to swim out of the mouth of the weir by using a combination of noise – the two outboard motors – and a seine – a net used for getting herring out of the weir when there’s market. The challenge is to be firm but not intrusive. The last thing you want is a panicked whale swimming in a tight space. I won’t go into the blow by blow details. I’ll just summarize by saying that we got the whale out of the main weir – after a tense moment when we were convinced that it had actually drowned on bottom, caught between two stakes. But I neglected to mention that part of the weir construction is what’s called the “wing” and the “wing” is designed to corral the herring into the main weir. Part of the wing is called the “hook” and unfortunately, in this case, the deepest water is in the hook. Naturally that’s where the whale wanted to be.

The next challenge was to get the whale out of the hook, down the wing and to freedom, NOT back into the weir. After several failed attempts at this – we’d get him (or her - I have no idea) out of the hook and once he even got clear of the wing but in order to get to open water he had to swim over a shallow place – a “ledge” – and despite our earnest reasoning, he simply didn’t trust us and was frustratingly persistent in his efforts to return to the hook.

After several hours all told, my husband decided to wait until the tide conditions would help us to help him by giving him more water in which to swim over the ledge. Another important detail is that where we live there's about 28 feet rise and fall of tide which means every 6 and 1/2 hours the tide rises or falls 28 feet (which is very impressive!).

The happy ending to the story is that when my husband went back about 4 hours later, he was able – singlehandedly (well that is, with his skiff) to gently push the whale over the ledge by circling behind him. So all in all, it’s fair to say that I participated in phase one of the rescue.

All that to say that I couldn’t help thinking of some similarities and differences between rescuing stranded starfish, this minke whale and humanitarian aid and development in developing countries.

I guess technically the whale didn’t NEED our help. He was just in the wrong place – from the fishermen’s perspective - since a herring weir isn’t going to catch herring when there’s a whale in it. But the fact is, we wanted to help it get out of the trap it was in to open water. We wanted to do it good. To set it free. It, however, had other ideas.

It didn’t trust us, didn’t particularly like us and it wasn’t impressed with our efforts or our intentions. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this… but the thing is, it resorted to its instincts for survival. Those instincts might have worked in some circumstances – or even in this circumstance, given enough time. And in a state of nature, there wouldn’t BE a weir in his way. Similarly, if we substitute local knowledge and cultural heritage rather than instinct, people in African countries, for example, have been perfectly capable of solving their own problems – at least when they are in situations of their own making or even when faced with natural events.

But human intervention or “progress” being as it is, we could say that global realities – economic and political and even environmental – have put obstacles in their way. Trade policies, reckless environmental impacts of decisions made by large corporations who don’t answer to African governments (or maybe even to their own national governments!), economic and political strings...all conspire quietly to frustrate their efforts at sustainability. Then humanitarian aid and development workers come into their country and want to help them escape from their poverty traps. Is it any wonder that they might be a bit suspicious?

Is it too much to suggest that perhaps their scepticism is warranted and that resisting our “help” may actually be a prudent course of action?

I’m also conscious – and uncomfortable – as I write this that I am portraying people in developing countries as somehow less advanced than we are. I realize that for the sake of the analogy I am casting US in the role of benevolent fisherman (or little boy in the case of the starfish) and THEM as helpless starfish or confused whale. This is, I’m sure, an unfortunate but almost inevitable bias – part of our ethnocentrism.

I don't want to make too much of this, but again, I'm just thinking through what it means to be engaged in aid and development. I'm not suggesting that we stop trying to do good - only that we do it with great care and compassion and a realization that we CAN do harm, even when we don't intend to. Hey - if it's THIS complicated for me to explain the relatively simple procedure for getting a whale out of a weir, think how much more complicated is the life of peoples in countries and cultures half a world away... or across the street in some cases.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Making a difference...

I love a good metaphor, a clever analogy, a simple yet poignant story that has a profound meaning. I’m always looking for stories and illustrations that can help an audience quickly grasp a point that is central to what I’m trying to say. When it comes to convincing people that they CAN make a difference, despite the enormity of the problems, there’s a story about a little boy who patiently throws starfish back into the ocean.

The scene is an expansive beach. The tide is going out and thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of starfish have been stranded and will soon die. The boy is patiently picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the water. The little boy is challenged by someone with considerably less vision – perhaps an older man, or maybe a woman – who asks him why he is bothering with this impossible task since there are SO MANY starfish and he can’t possibly save them all. In fact, the skeptic says, “Why do you bother? You can’t make a difference because there are so many of them that need to be rescued”, to which the little boy replies, as he gently lifts another starfish and returns it to the ocean, that what he is doing has made a difference to THAT ONE. The obvious lesson is that we CAN make a difference, even if we can’t do it all.

We can save some, though many will perish. We need to be persistent in the face of cynicism and misunderstanding and outright opposition. We can make a difference. It’s an inspiring story. Simple, yet powerful. We identify with the little boy, with his innocence and clarity of purpose. We’re reminded of the profound truth that “a little child shall lead them.”

I’ve just returned from the World Religions Summit in Winnipeg, where some 80 religious leaders came as official delegates from a variety of faith traditions and from all corners of the world (as well as a dozen or so youth delegates from Canada), to gather together for a few days to talk about three of the critical issues facing humanity - poverty, the environment and peace – and to finalize a “statement” to be presented to the political leaders of the G8 and G20 countries who have now commenced their meetings in Ontario.

It was a tremendous privilege for me to be there and to participate in the deliberations and discussions. There was really something incredibly moving about being in a room of such diversity and to realize that despite our differences – and they are MANY! – spiritual, ethnic, national, economic and political - we are ALL motivated by our faith traditions and by our own personal faith professions to imagine a future that is different than the present and different than the future towards which our current path is stubbornly leading us.

We had an opportunity to hear various guest speakers who each brought to the table a degree of experience and expertise which would help inform our understanding and our “statement”. It was a truly positive experience…

And yet, I find myself now thinking about the boy and the starfish and asking myself some disturbing questions. See – I’ve always accepted the story at face value. I can picture the beach and the poor, helpless starfish. Since I live on the ocean, the scene is complete with the feel of the ocean breeze and the cry of gulls. The gentle swell of the waves as they wash onto the beach and then recede, each time further and further from the immobilized starfish. I can picture the thin line of rockweed which marks the high water aspiration of the next cycle of the tide. And I believe the narrator who states that these starfish will inevitably die without this one little boy’s intervention.

I’ve also been to the so-called developing countries and it’s not hard for me to understand the intended transfer in this illustration to young children, who, like the starfish, are stranded - but by a tide of indifference and callous exploitation. I am inspired to help as many as I can.

But – and here’s the thing that is now bothering me – what if it’s even more complicated? What if some of our assumptions are a little off? What if there is actually a deeper reality that we have not seen?What if our efforts at aid and development are actually more like a new form of colonialism - despite our truly good intentions?

One of our speakers was John W. MacArthur, the Executive Director of Millennium Promise (see This man has worked tirelessly with a vision of ending extreme poverty and addressing all of the issues defined by the Millennium Development Goals. As evidence of the impact this organization is making, John spoke of the number of mosquito nets that his organization have provided in the fight against malaria. He spoke with passion and conviction and I could picture the distribution of these nets to people in malaria ridden countries and the humble gratitude with which many people would receive these nets.

But in the back of my mind was something that I had heard or read once about the fact that these nets provide only temporary relief – the pesticide coating wears off, the nets become torn, nets are used for all kinds of other purposes and of course, the mosquitoes still carry the deadly virus. In short, the nets help some for a time, but they are perhaps OUR solution to a problem that we don’t totally understand.

As John was speaking, I thought to look to the small African delegation to gauge their response to his words. My eyes fell especially on a woman from Zambia – I watched her and suspected by her body language, that she was uncomfortable with what she was hearing. So, during the next coffee break, I sought her out and asked her to tell me what she was thinking. Basically, she affirmed that it is true that many people in African countries die of malaria and it is true that the mosquito nets provide some protection for a time.

But, she said, it is not a sustainable solution and they do not take into account traditional knowledge or methods. The mosquito nets are bought elsewhere and brought into African countries. They do not contribute to the local economy. They are not an African solution.

Malaria has been an issue in Africa for a long time, and little consideration is given to traditional methods for dealing with mosquitoes. We ASSUME that our solution – our method – is better. After all, we have the advantage of science and technology and modern pesticides. We are HELPING the immobilized and stranded and helpless Africans. We are saving the children. For the first time, it’s occurring to me that we may be so focused on outcomes, that we may have lacked a good deal of sensitivity in terms of approach. Are African children going to grow up thinking that their own parents and communities and governments cannot protect them? That their survival is in the hands of foreign agencies?

I’m sure some of you will be thinking, “well at least with our help they WILL grow up. They won’t die of malaria – or hunger, or some water borne disease, or lack of basic access to food – if they’re fortunate enough to have our help.” I know what you’re saying. But I’m increasingly uneasy with it. I hear youth and young adults utter the mantra of wanting to “help”, wanting to “make a difference” and I commend them for their commitment to get involved. But I think we have to think more deeply.

Maybe in our planning and strategizing we should pay more attention to the "dignity factor" and to the way our actions affect not just our intended outcome, but the less tangible impact on the capacity of a country to care for it's people in the long term. I know that this may sound simplistic and may be overestimating the capacity of leaders in these countries to overcome corruption, not to mention other forces that are far beyond their control. But still, I can't help thinking...

And just to be totally clear, I'm NOT suggesting that there is nothing we can do to make an effective and positive difference. I'm not criticizing anyone who is sincerely trying to make a difference in the lives of the millions of people who have been stranded and are in peril through lack of access to things like safe and nutritious food, water, health care, etc. I'm just thinking that we need to make sure that our contribution is sensitive and empowering and that it is sustainable and builds dignity and doesn't erode it. After all, a starfish is NOT a human.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Faith, Politics and Peace...

As I write, leaders of diverse faith communities from around the world are making their way to Winnipeg for the World Religious Leaders' Summit. They're coming from every continent - but the bulk of them will be from the G8 countries. The rationale for this is that if the G8 political leaders will listen to any faith leaders, it's more likely that they'll listen to leaders from within their own constituencies - perhaps a bit of a naive hope, but there it is.

These World Religious Leaders Summits have been held just prior to the G8 Political Summits since 2005 and have consistently provided a forum for religious leaders to nudge political leaders to keep the Millennium Development Goals on the table - AND to live up to the commitments that they have already made. As it turns out, that too may be a wee bit naive.

Take the upcoming summit - between the global economy showing distinct signs of serious wear and tear and the BP oil spill - the most recent large scale example of the folly of thinking that nature is a passive slave to human exploitation - the G8 leaders may see sincere efforts to eradicate extreme poverty as a luxury they simply can't afford. And seriously, we can protest and posture all we want but the truth is, the voters in the G8 countries are - for the most part - not prepared to back governments that actually DO make this their priority.

When it comes down to it, most of us still have a "me first" attitude. We want to eradicate poverty so long as it doesn't cost us - our jobs, our conveniences, our standard of living, our access to safe water, food choice, education, medical care... We may be advocates for the voluntary simplicity movement, but we're not likely to be as enthusiastic about government policies that FORCE us to simpler lifestyles. But I digress. What I really want to reflect on is the fact that the faith leaders will be pushing the G8/G20 leaders to invest in peace - the three themes of the draft statement are: address poverty, care for our earth and invest in peace.

Having returned from Rwanda recently maybe I'm just overly sensitive to the failings of faith to be agents of peace in specific moments in history. Talk is easy. And of course the Rwandan genocide is just ONE example. There are SO many others! Examples of war and other forms of conflict, where people and institutions of faith have failed to resist the evil of hatred and have embraced brutality in order to indulge religious partisanship.

Sure, we at the Winnipeg Summit will mean well. And those who gather around the table in Winnipeg will NOT be the extremists from their faith traditions... but isn't it a question of credibility? There is a painful irony - it seems to me - that the first of seven National Events to be hosted by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) will have just concluded in Winnipeg (June 16-19) as the Religious Leaders Summit begins.

These events are the latest effort of Canadians to come to terms with the horrific abuses of the Indian Residential School system - a systematic effort to eradicate Indian culture through stripping Indian children of their language and culture. The Residential Schools were established as a result of the Gradual Civilization Act passed in Canada in 1857 with the purpose of "assimilating" Indians. In 1920, attendance at these schools was made compulsory for Indian children 7-15 years of age and they were taken from their families by force - by priests, Indian agents and police officers. Once established in Residential Schools, many children were also subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. These schools operated until 1996... but the effects will haunt us for generations to come.

As we think about the cumulative pain inflicted on peoples around the world and throughout the ages - by religious leaders or in the name of one religion or another - the call from the World Religious Leaders to the Political Leaders to invest in peace is not misguided or inappropriate, but it must be made with immense humility and honest contrition and repentance. It's not enough to be peace lovers from within our various faith traditions. We must be peace makers - and that's a whole different mandate.

As we call for the political leaders to rise to the moment and provide inspired leadership and action around peace, let's spend some time repenting of our own past failures, mending our own fences and taking a firm stand within our faith traditions for a peace grounded in justice for all. Nuclear disarmament may be the responsibility of political leaders, but an appetite and a culture of peace can begin in the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples of the world. Let's make some peace!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "right to food"?

I need to give a little context for this post. I'm in Winnipeg as a guest at the Board meetings of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and then I'm staying on for the World Religious Leaders Summit at the University of Winnipeg next week. There are two issues that I've been thinking about these last few days and I intend to talk about one in this post and the other next time - probably in a few days. Just so you know what's coming, the topic for today is the concept of the right to food. Next time it's going to be some thoughts on the role of faith in promoting peace.

So - the right to food. Simple proposition really. Every social activist apparently resonates with the idea that no matter how rich some people are, or how poor other people are, everyone should have the right to eat. From grass roots activists to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the right to food is about declaring that we ALL have the right to eat. Sounds good... fair... right. Who can argue? But the thing is, I think that when we dig a little deeper this proposition is problematic from both a pragmatic perspective and from a Christian perspective. Hear me out.

First, the pragmatic perspective. So what happens? According to the UN,

The World Food Summit in November 1996 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and gave a specific mandate to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to better define the rights related to food and propose ways to implement and realize them. (see

That was in 1996. See where I'm going with this? It's easy to say that everyone should have the right to have access to safe and nutritious food, but who's responsible? When drought destroys the crops in whole regions of the world, or when scarce agricultural land is used to produce cash crops for rich people a world away, or when a flood ravages the subsistence farmland of small shareholders, or when food is contaminated, or livestock gets sick and dies, who makes sure that all those people and their families have safe and nutritious food?

The right to food campaign may make some sense in a political context - when a layer of government makes a conscious commitment to patrol the distribution of food so that even the poorest have their basic needs met - but let's think a bit about the implications from a Christian perspective.

I'm thinking that we shouldn't take food and water for granted OR see them as entitlements. We also shouldn't exploit them for profit - and certainly not when somewhere around a billion people are chronically hungry. Nope. The way I see it, if God created this earth with the capacity to sustain life, then food and water are actually sacred gifts. Our relationship to food then is not about rights or demands but gratitude and humble stewardship so that there's enough to share - not as a right but as a privilege. And the privilege part is not just that we have the privilege to enjoy safe and nutritious food, but the greater privilege is in the sharing at a common table - having enough for everyone to eat and some to spare.

See when we're not hording the resources there is an amazing multiplication that happens around the table. Five loaves and two fish become both food for the masses AND symbols of abundance. But the minute we start arguing about rights, they're just five loaves and two fish - a snack pack for a little boy's lunch. BTW - if you're not familiar with this bible story, you can read it at John 6:5-13 or just click on this link:

These are tricky times. Sometimes the rhethoric can get the best of us and we get turned around. Sometimes the very thing that sounds fair and just is actually a diversion. Let's be careful about using the language of rights, even when it's someone else's rights we're talking about. This is literally just scratching the surface of the issue, but it's a start.

And speaking of rhetoric, next time I'm going to be talking about faith, peace and politics. Some interesting ironies.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A "Lost" Generation?

I’ve been noticing something lately and it’s pretty disturbing. I keep running into young adults who have some degree of “Christian” background but now they want absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Absolutely NOTHING. I’m talking specifically about a sub-set of those who are twenty-something (and certainly not ALL twenty-somethings!). They’ve survived high school and many are in university or have already graduated from university with an undergraduate degree and a pile of debt. Or they're out working and dealing with bills and kids and the realization that there really are limits and life isn't always captured in Facebook status updates. They’re often pretty astute in some things. They have a “survivor” mentality. You don’t have to convince them that it’s a rough world. They’re all about alliances and looking after themselves. They’re hard – they’re into horror movies – the more brutal the better. They’re not like the hippies of the 60s with a culture of peace and love and non-conformity. No – they’re more about brazen cynicism and naked individualism. Whatever Christian influence they had as kids has largely been de-bunked and exposed as a fraud along with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

I get it that they don’t find Christian churches very appealing. I get it that most expressions of Christian faith offend their post modern values. Christianity’s meta narrative, call for commitment, truth claims, judgmentalism, exclusivity – these are all totally counter cultural in their enlightened and educated circles. I get it that they feel entitled to a good dose of cynicism – after all, there are LOTS of issues that make optimism and faith in a sovereign good God seem more than a little naïve. And I get it that Christianity often seems to be more part of the problem than part of any solution to the injustices that abound. I get it. But it bothers me.

It bothers me because they aren’t just sceptical – they’ve completely closed their minds to Christianity. And In so doing, they’ve broken one of their own values. They will – in fact, they MUST - be tolerant and open-minded about just about EVERYTHING. But for some reason, it’s ok to dismiss Christianity. It’s ok to mock and pity Christians for their foolish faith.

I suppose they think that they’ve given it a chance. After all, they went along to church and Sunday School - when they didn’t know any better – maybe even liked it. They learned the stories about Noah’s Ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus (stories about feeding thousands of people with a little boy’s lunch, or raising Lazarus from the dead, or healing lepers), the brutal crucifixion of Jesus and the claim that he rose from the dead. Those stories were pretty impressive when they were kids, but now they just seem to have lost their lustre.

So they walk away.

I respect everyone’s fundamental right to believe – or not believe – whatever they want. But I’m looking at a generation of young adults who, I think, have shut their minds a little too quickly. I’m sad for them and I’m sad for the church. I’m sad for them because I think that in the midst of their pain – and let’s not even get into an argument as to whether or not they are in pain! – they are turning to all kinds of destructive, toxic influences. They may self-medicate with drugs, alcohol and other addictions – materialism, sex, high risk adventure – all of which may give temporary reprieve to their personal and social pain, but what if these are actually very dangerous idols that have the potential to totally suck the life out of them?

And I’m sad for the church because we desperately need the perspectives and critiques and brutally honest questions of this generation and the more of them that walk away, the less likely we are to get them. As I write this, though, faces flash through my mind – faces of young adults who haven’t given up on Christianity – at least not yet - but who are wrestling with all kinds of questions and issues. I fervently hope that they hang in there – that they keep pushing and keep questioning…

Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’m being a hypocrite. After all, haven’t I closed my mind to certain worldviews? How can I criticize someone for closing their mind to Christ, when I’ve essentially closed my mind to all worldviews that aren’t centred in Christ? But I’ve also argued that certainty can be dangerous. I do recognize that I hold a lot of what I believe to be true fairly loosely – and I might be criticized by some for being TOO wishy washy in my thinking. But the truth is - I don’t have it all figured out. I know that. In fact, I love the uncertainties. I love the questions. I love trying to figure out what I've missed or where my thinking has taken a wrong turn.

And maybe I’m too stressed out about this. They'll figure it out. Or not. Either way, all I can do is keep on trying to put my faith into practice in a way that is real and honest and transparent... and I can pray that God, in his sovereignty, will open our eyes.

Monday, May 31, 2010

More thoughts on evil

So - writing that last post certainly didn't help me to STOP thinking about the problem of evil! Here are some bits and pieces that may or may not come across as being coherent.

Evil is a perennial problem. It messes everything up. It lies and cheats and steals and mocks and gloats. It manipulates and tempts. It cannot be trusted - ever. It is pervasive and persistent. It is always near - always lurking in the shadows and dancing in the light. And every person and every generation decides how they are going to deal with evil.

The three monkeys who say, "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" embody one attitude toward our relationship with evil (See for some background). It may keep you out of trouble, but honestly it's not a very inspiring posture.

I confess that I find it tempting to just stay out of evil's way and sometimes I'm not proud of it. Sometimes I want to have more courage to take evil on. For sure I want to see myself as being on the side of good. I don't want to be naive. I don't want to put my head in the sand and just fill my eyes and ears and mouth with pleasant and uplifting sounds and sights. But I'm noticing a disturbing trend, especially as I watch popular culture and how it appeals to the generation of young people - the teens and twenty-somethings. Always a rebellious age, but it seems to me that as a generation, they have adopted a reckless attitude toward evil. It's like they think they can mock it - toy with it - call its bluff - flirt with it. But still be able to walk away. Still be able to resist entrapment. Still be in control.

The post-modern aversion to absolute truth may have opened this generation up to a dangerous lack of respect for the power of absolute evil.

The truth is, I think, that there is a very fine line between good and evil. But it IS a line and we can't straddle it. We are always on one side of it or the other. We might for a time be able to cross back and forth - but that's a very dangerous game and one that most of us won't win.

There's a term in social sciences these days to describe people who defy the negative circumstances that they're in and manage to survive and even thrive against all odds. The term is positive deviance (see for one explanation of this concept). It's a neat thing. It's a woman who, in spite of all kinds of economic, emotional and physical hardships and oppression, has not only survived but also manages to provide for her children. Where others are crushed by life's circumstances, she finds a way. And here's the thing. When it's POSITIVE deviance, she does it without giving into the temptation of evil. She does it without cheating or lying or stealing. She does it by abiding by the rules, not by ignoring them or spitting on them.

In this generation I see an interesting combination of things at work: there is a longing for justice and goodness but it's mixed with a loathing for all pretense and then there is the arrogance of youth that presumes immortality in the face of danger. Danger? Bring it on! They ignore our words of caution and warning as feeble and cowardly and impotent babblings of a pathetic generation which spends most of its time pretending that things are not what they appear. Where I might try to tip toe around evil, they march right up to it and think that they might even beat evil at its own game. They might run with evil - laughing at our cautions - but in the end, they think that they can turn it in. Of course many youth will even laugh at our insistence to differentiate between good and evil. They may think it's all an illusion and that all that matters is the thrill of the ride - seeking out and squeezing every opportunity for pleasure. For a season they may be content with this philosophy of life but there may be moments when disenchantment casts a shadow on the good times. Drugs or alcohol or a good shopping spree might banish the disenchantment for a time, but at odd times you'll find it nibbling at the edges of your carefree contentment.

Evil is real. Hiding from it isn't the solution, but neither is it wise to make it your friend.

The problem of evil

Over the years many much smarter and much more articulate people than I have tackled this topic. I don't pretend that I have anything new to add to those voices, but I've been thinking about this so much of late that I just need to get something down on paper. So here goes...

A while back I was invited to speak at a pretty large church out west. As I usually do when I'm given the opportunity, I talked about some of the immense challenges facing humanity, and the growing disparity between the global rich and the global poor, and the opportunity and obligation for the "church" to live faithfully and justly and simply and to be a prophetic witness in our world - to live out a "different" way - to be and to offer a creative and positive counter cultural movement.

As the congregants filed out after the service, one agitated man confronted me at the door with the question, "what do you consider to be the greatest injustice in the world?". Now I suppose that I should be well equipped for such a moment with a clear and confident response to this question. It's a reasonable question, after all. But still, it caught me off guard. My mind raced through possible responses and I don't remember exactly what I said but it was something about there being so MANY injustices and all of them serious, but so many of them rooted in power and economic disparity. Whatever I said exactly, I clearly failed his test. As it turns out I think that to pass his test would have required that I simplify the whole thing and identify abortion as the greatest injustice. But I don't want to talk about that here - that's a topic for another day...

The question (of the greatest injustice) has been lodged in my mind and I can't seem to find an answer that completely satisfies me. Since coming back from Rwanda recently, I seem to be more aware than ever of the many big and small ways that humanity abuses and oppresses the marginalized and the weak. But I'm also more aware of examples - large and small - of people who refuse to take advantage of their positions of power and influence to improve their own position. The stark contrast between beauty and hope and resilience and generosity on the one hand and meanness and selfishness and brutality on the other hand has me baffled. I look at individuals who, acting out of some deep woundedness and sense of vulnerability, lash out at those around them in all manner of destructive ways. I listen to the news and feel an immense sadness for people who are SO hurt and disoriented that they truly don't know how to live well. The sadness is profound.

And I'm frustrated when Christians are satisfied with trite responses to the pain and evil that is so pronounced in our world. Years ago when I helped with our AWANA youth program one of the verses that the kids had to memorize was Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? The older I get the more I see our capacity for wicked thought, wicked action, wicked intent... but I also see the possibilities to stare down our own wickedness and do something else - something good and right and just. We CAN train ourselves to resist the evil that comes naturally to us. Maybe the first thing is to acknowledge that wickedness and evil IS our default setting. If we do nothing to change it, we WILL act according to our base nature of selfishness and greed. But it doesn't have to be so. We CAN be different. And as we pursue a different path we become part of a movement that resists evil in all of its forms. As individuals we live in such a way that people not only feel safe around us, but may even seek out our company so that they can find some space to gather strength for their own struggles. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.

I think this is our first step - our Jerusalem. It's being light in the small sphere of our personal influence - our homes, our places of work and worship. It's no small thing. And I truly think that this is ALL that God asks of us. It's the only thing that we have to offer - our own life as we lay it down. What God will do with it beyond our Jerusalem is for him to decide. But as I've said before, this is not an invitation to apathy - rather, it's an acknowledgment that God is in control of ALL things, seen and unseen. He may use us in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, but if we haven't figured out how to live simply and justly and faithfully in our own skins and in Jerusalem, we won't be much use anywhere else.

Evil is real - no doubt. And we're not going to outsmart it or outmaneuver it or outrun it. But we can - and must - resist evil... and be part of communities that help one another in our resistance efforts - in our own hearts, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

Friday, May 07, 2010

World Religions Leaders' Summit in Canada

No doubt you've heard that Canada is hosting the political leaders of the G8 and G20 countries this June (the 25-27) in Ontario - the G8 leaders will meet in the Muskoka Region (in Huntsville) on June 25 and 26, the summit that some are already dubbing "the blackfly summit"! For trivia buffs, this will be their 36th annual meeting. The G20 leaders meet in Toronto, June 26-27.

What you may not know is that from June 21-23, just prior to the political summit, religious leaders from around the world will be gathering at the University of Winnipeg in a parallel summit (see to talk about the challenges facing humanity and to finalize an interfaith statement to be delivered to the political leaders. A draft of this statement, as well as a number of faith-based responses to it, can be found at This is the 6th Annual Relgious Leaders' Summit.

A Canadian Interfaith Partnership group (led by the Canadian Council of Churches) has been working for the past 18 months or so, preparing to host this event. The countdown is on and plans are coming together nicely. While the event promises to be a good one - with religious leaders representing the major faith traditions in the world, great speakers, a wonderful venue, etc. etc. - what remains to be done is to mobilize Canadians of faith to be effectively engaged in the process, now and in the future.

Political leaders can meet, discuss, strategize... faith leaders can meet, discuss, strategize. But at the end of the day, if the citizens of the world are not informed and involved, all of the plans and strategies may evaporate into thin air as new challenges and new crises demand immediate attention. The Millennium Development Goals are a case in point. When they were established by the United Nations at the beginning of the 21st century, we all felt comforted that problems had been identified, specific targets had been set and there seemed to be the political will to tackle the problems in a coherent and coordinated manner. The G8 and G20 leaders were all on side. But then, at each successive meeting, some new disaster diverted their attention away from the MDGs - 9/11, the tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina, the global economic recession, the ongoing "war against terror", and most recently the earthquake in Haiti (to name but a few) - all big issues, but perhaps all symptoms of more fundamental problems which remain unaddressed and unresolved.

Leaders come and go, whether they are political leaders or spiritual leaders. They have good intentions. But they ALL work within systems not of their own making. There are political (both big "P" and little "p") realities and economic pressures that can be quite unforgiving. The effectiveness of any leader lasts only as long as their tenure, and that can be cut short in any number of ways. Point is, if we leave it to the leaders - whether political or spiritual - we shouldn't be surprised to find that progress has been slow and the good intentions haven't produced the kinds of results that were promised.

I'm absolutely 100% convinced that people of faith - and that includes any and all kinds of faith - CAN and SHOULD be involved in the political processes as informed and engaged global citizens. Working as a member of the Interfaith Steering Committee for the Religious Leaders' Summit has been my first opportunity to work in an interfaith context. And it's been refreshing and encouraging to sit around the table with people from various faith traditions, to talk about issues of global justice.

The Interfaith Partnership began our work together with a devotion that drew our attention to the fact that every major faith tradition in the world has some version of what Christians call the "golden rule" - "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (see It turns out that we have LOTS in common and when we don't focus on our differences, we have something of significance to say to our political leaders - and they WILL listen when we speak with one voice!

There's been lots of discussion in the media around the agenda for this event, focusing especially on Stephen Harper's intention to make maternal and child health a development priority for the upcoming G8 Summit (that is, Millennium Development Goals four and five - reduce child mortality and improve maternal health). And of course, economic issues will likely steal the stage as well as any current environmental crisis. In fact, the priority issues for the summit are the economy, the environment, and development (see for more detail).

If you want to get up to speed on the Summits taking place in Canada - both political and religious - here are a few good links:

For lots of good information on the G8 summits, including specific information on the 2010 summit, see

The website for the Interfaith Partnership is

There is an online petition that you can check out - it's pretty brief and to the point - you can find it at Those of you who know me, know that I'm not a big fan of online petitions because we sometimes use them to satisfy ourselves that we've "done something" when we actually haven't taken the time to understand the issues or to have an informed opinion. So, I encourage you to sign the petition, but only AFTER you've read it and have done anough extra reading and thinking to be confident that you actually DO agree with it!

Well, that should give you a good start. Also, a reminder - don't get discouraged thinking that the problems are simply too BIG. You can't do everything, but you can do something, and the first step is to be informed...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Olympic Shine... or Shame?

I might have been an Olympian. No - really. Back in 1980 (I know – that was 3o years ago!) I was on the Canadian National Field Hockey Squad. I was one of 20 “carded” women field hockey players in Canada - essentially we were on Federal Government Scholarships so that we could devote time to training. Most of us were in university and the financial support meant that we could train instead of working. And if Canada hadn’t boycotted the Olympics that year – well, I might have been one of the 16 chosen to represent our country at the Olympics. And, just for the record, the Canadian Women’s field hockey team did qualify for the Olympics in 1980. But, fact is, that was the year Moscow hosted the Olympics and the cold war was still “on” and we boycotted. I had mixed feelings then and still do. To be perfectly honest, I most likely wouldn’t have been one of the 16, but at least I would have been in the running. So I don’t really exaggerate when I say that I might have been an Olympian.

So, that being said, I watch the Olympics – both winter and summer - with a bit of nostalgia and when the Canadian National Anthem is played, I feel more than a little pride and usually a tear or two. It’s a noble thing to represent one’s country. At least it can be. But I also confess that I have mixed feelings about the Olympics these days. It’s not just that we’ve totally crossed the line that used to keep professional athletes out of the Olympics so that Olympic athletes were really amateurs, unspoiled by huge salaries and endorsements. It’s not just that technology and performance enhancing drugs have made the competitions all about shaving fractions of seconds off of personal best efforts – to an almost ridiculous degree. No – I suppose those things are predictable and pretty much inevitable and for those who have committed their lives to their Olympic endeavours, they make sense (I guess).

My unease has more to do with the fact that there is no such thing as a “level playing field”. Countries invest in their athletes. And for host countries - that's another level of spending altogether as they put millions of dollars on facilities and infrastructure and other expenses associated with staging the games. In fact, the Vancouver Sun reports that the 2010 Olympics actually cost in excess of 6 BILLION dollars (see We justify the dollars spent as an “investment”. If all goes well, the argument goes, the investment will pay off – in medals, in money spent by those visiting the event, in good will, in positive press, in National pride, in a boost in economic activity in the host city... It's a marketing bonanza.

The fact is, though, the Olympic Games are really an indulgence for the rich. Rich athletes, rich countries, rich corporations, rich fans. Money flows. People are giddy with the spending rush.

Sure – the Opening Ceremonies celebrate and showcase the participation of athletes and artists from all kinds of countries – rich and poor, north and south, developed and developing, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. And for a moment we can believe that every athlete has a chance to compete and win. And sure enough, there are always amazing athletes who defy all rational expectations and rise above poverty or personal tragedy or injury or illness – and make it to the podium as shining examples of the indomitable human spirit. We celebrate with them and cry tears of joy and pride in solidarity with their effort. But who are we kidding? For every rags to riches story – every success against all odds profile – there are hundreds of thousands, likely millions of aspiring Olympians who don’t make it to the games, let alone to the podium.

And the collateral damage of the event may be more or less invisible to the naive and uninitiated, but it’s very real. While the spotlight is on the athletes and the podium, who’s thinking about the prostitutes, the homeless, the broken-hearted, the hopeless? And, with progress on the Millennium Development Goals lagging behind targets in many countries, is it really ok to spend billions of dollars to bring elite athletes together to push themselves to the very limits of human performance in an effort to “own the podium”? Surely our celebrations are dampened by the fact that the playing field is far from level and the Olympics actually perpetuate and celebrate inequalities.

Maybe you’re thinking that even Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. As I’ve likely said before, I’m an idealist – but even I don’t think that we’re going to eradicate poverty. But we can do a lot better than we’re doing and until we really put our hearts into it, somehow the excesses of the Olympics take a lot of the shine off the medals – at least from where I sit.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rwanda, ethnic identity, genocide - what can we learn?

I'm in Rwanda, mostly observing and trying to learn all that I can about the challenges and opportunities for Rwanda in these days with the 1994 genocide of Tutsis now almost exactly 16 years in the past. I've been reading all kinds of accounts of the genocide and watching documentaries and movies and I just can't imagine the horror of it.

How is it possible that any person could do the things that were done? I have no answer for that question, though I know that this was neither the first nor the last time that people will act in such a way. And, to be honest, I have no absolute certainty that I would be incapable of such actions myself. It's clear that simply being a Christian does not innoculate us against participating in evil. After all, Rwanda was, at the time of the genocide, one of the most Christian countries in the world if we are looking at church affiliation and attendance as indicators of faith.

In some ways Rwanda seems to be an example of a country which has, with determination, put the horrific events of those 100 days in 1994 behind it. The government has taken a firm hand and there seems to be a quite remarkable stability here. It's an absolutely stunningly beautiful country, with rolling hills, lush soil, a wonderful climate, and a people working hard to keep a half step ahead of extreme poverty. And yet, it still feels like a fragile and tentative peace.

In fact, just a few weeks ago there were some grenade attacks in Kigali and the military presence now is apparently much more noticeable than is "normal". Still, I feel quite safe. But as I watch and listen, I can't help wondering what we can learn from the Rwandan experience. What lesson is there in all of this for me as an individual Christian, or for the entire family of faith?

The National narrative in Rwanda - that is, the state generated ideology to ensure that such a thing will not happen again (the "never again" campaign) - is espoused in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. The explicit claim is that the country is united. People are taught that they are Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi (or Twa - the aboriginal peoples). But this raises the question of identity and I wonder if it's healthy to try to eradicate one's ethnic identity...?

Now there are those who claim that the ethnic division between Tutsi and Hutu was quite artificial anyway, so erasing it is an entirely good thing. But I'm not sure that it's that easy to erase an identity, especially once a history and a consciousness has been established and seered into one's very being. Surely it would be good if a person can be Rwandese AND Hutu or Rwandese AND Tutsi or Rwandese AND Twa. We've visited communities that are beneficiaries of Canadian Foodgrains Bank food security projects, where community members (both Hutu and Tutsi, and even Twa) are working together and gradually learning how to trust. But it's not easy.

Sometimes I think we Canadians have put too much emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, but as I sit here in Rwanda I have to say that I'm very happy to be part of the Canadian effort to be inclusive and to even celebrate ethnic and religious and cultural and political and linguistic diversity. I know that our acceptance of "the other" among us may not be as deep or as genuine or as optimistic as we might hope, but it seems right that we would allow for diversity rather than suppressing it.

I recognize that our treatment of the First Nations peoples continues to be a signficant stain on our credibility, and an issue whose "solution" continues to elude us, and I know that things are not always what they seem. There are still marginalized and vulnerable people in Canada - lots of them, in fact - but we at least seem to be moving in a positive direction, even if it is painfully slowly for those who feel the sting of racism or other forms of discrimination and stigma.

I guess that the real point of this posting - sorry that I've been rambling! - is that I'm actually quite concerned that the security that we often take for granted in Canada may actually be quite fragile. It's easy to get along when we are enjoying a pretty enviable standard of living and when our economy is holding up pretty well under lots of international pressure. We're not being attacked by foreign armies and our climate, though a little odd at times, is not nearly as extreme as it is in other places. We all like to criticize the government for one thing or another, but all in all, we're pretty pleased with our democratic system - and what we don't like, we're free to advocate to change. We can complain about education but essentially ALL of our kids get to go to school. We may grumble about inefficiencies and delays in accessing our health care, but most of us are pretty proud of our Medicare system. The price of food can make it harder to stretch our food budget, but most of us don't lose a lot of sleep wondering whether or not we will eat the next day or if our kids will die from some complication of malnutrition. Yup - all things considered we have it pretty good in Canada. But that could all change in a heartbeat. I won't bother to spell out the possible scenarios that could turn things upside down - and I'm not being a prophet of doom - honestly!

My point is that we would do well to learn from Rwanda. As Christians, we need to guard our hearts and our minds against all manner of evil, not by making sure that we have everything we need for safety and security, but by living radically counter cultural lives. Being generous, not AFTER we've looked after all of our needs and desires, but off the top. Being an advocate and an encourager for the vulnerable - not just those who are half way around the world, but also those in our own neighbourhoods. Being a person who actively looks for ways to extend peace into our world, even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Next month is the month of mourning for Rwanda and especially from April 7-15 the country will be commemorating the pain of the genocide. Back in 1994 the world withdrew from Rwanda and left evil to run its course. In the aftermath of the genocide we were shocked, not just by the genocide in Rwanda, but also by our own indifference. The question that continues to haunt me is this: how is my faith equipping me to stand firm in the face of the evil forces which are loose in our world? Or am I choosing to stay clear of evil as best I can so that I will not have to put my faith or my life on the line? Tough questions...

Monday, March 01, 2010

What does Jesus REALLY want from us?

You know the time that Jesus encounters the rich young man - or the rich young ruler, depending on the translation? And remember how this intense young man seeks Jesus out and asks him what he needs to do to make sure that he’s on the right path? It’s a neat encounter. The way I see it, this guy is honestly searching for moral truth. He really wants to know how he can be righteous. And I believe him when he says that he’s kept the commandments. I used to think that he was being naïve in that he didn’t really know what he was claiming, but I’m starting to think that maybe, he really DID keep them. After all, they were pretty clear and if you were just going by the letter of the law, maybe it wasn’t actually impossible to keep them. So if we think for now that he is telling the truth – that he HAS kept the commandments – the fact that here he is, asking Jesus what more he needs to do implies that he intuitively knows that keeping the commandments is NOT enough. And, possibly – he wasn’t alone. I bet there were lots of pretty righteous Jews who had grown up in families which took the instructions in Deuteronomy 11:19-20 to heart. Families where the rules were taught, modeled, reinforced – where compliance was rewarded and where kids grew up knowing “right” from “wrong”. So here this guy is – a product of his culture and family – I think he would be a young man with a stellar reputation and perhaps his wealth or his social power would be interpreted as the evidence of a life God blesses. But it’s not enough, and he knows it.

So then Jesus unpacks the commandments and sums them up with one thing that this earnest young man lacks. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and come along with Jesus for the ride. Honestly, I’m surprised by the outcome. Bottom line is this: the rich young man turns down the offer – he goes away SAD because HE IS A MAN OF GREAT WEALTH. Ironic, eh? The very thing which could be seen as the indication of blessing for obedience – the wealth, the social power – Jesus says, just give those things up and come hang out with me. But he can’t do it. In fact, it doesn’t even seem that he gives the idea much thought. He chooses to go back to what he knows – what seems safe and secure and comfortable. He goes back to affluence. He goes back to a way of being that he knows is NOT fulfilling. A way of living which he knows is missing something. An empty righteousness.

I’ve thought about this encounter and I’ve even spoken about it some. I’ve never been satisfied that my interpretation of it has been accurate. I usually qualify the clear instruction of Jesus to this young man by saying something to the effect that it doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus expects US to actually sell all that we have and give to the poor. I say it’s more about whether or not we would be willing to… whether or not we have made our money and our influence an IDOL, which gets in the way of our relationship with God or with other people. I join the majority view which rationalizes and justifies our affluence and lets us off the hook. I say that of course Jesus doesn’t REALLY think we should sell everything. Surely Jesus knows that if we give ALL that we have to the poor, it’s not really going to make any difference. The poor will always be among us. We can’t help them all. Jesus says so himself.

But what if he really DOES mean it? What if it’s not really about the poor and what our small contributions – even if we give it ALL - can do to make their lives better? Here’s the thing: what if the act of getting rid of our riches is not about what it can do for the poor at all but all about freeing US from the temptation to trust in our wealth, our wisdom and our strength? And in case you don’t recognize that reference, it’s Jeremiah 9:23-24 – the prophet clearly tells us NOT to boast in these things but rather, if we’re going to boast we should boast that we KNOW and UNDERSTAND God, who is a God of justice. So what if our perfectly normal and natural participation in the social and economic structures of our society IS the problem? I know. This sounds WAY too radical. This is the sort of thing you might expect from an overly idealistic teenager. From someone who hasn’t yet figured out that you can actually do more good by going along with the world the way is. You know – get an education, get a good job, make lots of money and then you can enjoy a very comfortable life for yourself and still have some alms to give to the poor. You might even sacrifice some hard earned vacation time to go on a mission trip so that you can see first hand how desperately the poor need your help. I know. I don’t like where this is headed either. But I just can’t shake the thought that maybe Jesus really meant what he said. And as I think about it – holding this thought up to the light – it’s actually totally consistent with lots of other things that he said about justice and faith and warnings about money.

Final comment: even if we can convince ourselves that the idea of giving our material wealth away so that we can follow Jesus is ONLY for those who are too attached to their wealth, do we dare to ask God to clearly show us if that means US? Surely not I Lord…?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Not about Haiti... thoughts about sprititual rebar

I’ve had a chorus stuck in my mind for several weeks. You may know it from Sunday School:

Don’t build your house on the sandy land

Don’t build it too near the shore.

Well it might look kind of nice but you’ll have to build it twice;

Oh you’ll have to build your house once more!

You’ve got to build your house upon the rock;

Make a good foundation on a solid spot.

The rains may come and go, but the peace of God you will know!

This posting isn’t about Haiti. I suppose some of the images of the destruction in Haiti have subconsciously called this little chorus up from my memory banks. And along with the song, there are images of La Paz in Bolivia - a city of over a million inhabitants living at 3660m above sea level - the highest capital city in the world. La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia. But the first impression - and pretty amazing geographic reality - is that La Paz is literally built in a crater. As you drive down into the downtown section of La Paz from the airport, you literally wind down and around from the top of the crater to the bottom. There are houses everywhere, precariously perched on bits of land that must surely be hugely unstable. Apparently the poorer you are, the more likely it is that you will have to build your home in the most precarious areas. Areas that are almost sure to give way in the event of a mud slide or earthquake, or even a tremor. Even a good rainstorm could wash away the earth on which your home is perched.

Why do people build there, you might ask? Don’t they realize the danger? Why don’t they build on solid ground? Well – the stark reality is that there’s only so much solid ground to be had and many people – the majority in a place like La Paz – are simply priced out of the market for safety and security. It doesn’t really matter what they’d LIKE to do – that’s not an option. They build where they can. They do what they can. They take risks, not because they want to, but because they must. The winds come – the rain falls – they get knocked down – washed out – and, if they survive, they pick themselves up and start again.

The other image in my mind is of construction projects in countries where I’ve traveled - Bolivia and Kenya and El Salvador and Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Places where cement is often made in small mixers, transported by wheel barrel and poured, small batch by small batch, into crude forms. And the rebar (that's short for reinforcing bar) – the pieces of steel or, in their case, wood – whose purpose is to give the structure strength… Well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to place too much confidence in some of those buildings!

But what I really want to talk about in this posting is the metaphorical meaning behind this little Sunday School chorus. It’s not so much about our physical houses, but about our spiritual health and resilience. “Don’t build your house on the sandy land; don’t build it too near the shore…” The message is that we are to build our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ. I totally agree. But here’s the thing. What does this mean? What does it look like? See – we talk a lot about spiritual growth and discipleship, but much of what we DO seems to focus on just helping people find the lot where they can put their foundation. It's not so much about the building that takes place once the foundation is established. We want to “reach people for Christ”, bring people into the family of God, grow our churches. We encourage our youth to reach their friends – and it turns out that, in many cases, they’re way ahead of us. And they are passionate about DOING SOMETHING real with their faith.

How do we know if we’re growing spiritually? What’s our scorecard? Is it how many people we bring into the kingdom? There’s got to be more to spiritual growth than that. What’s our spiritual rebar? How do we BUILD on the foundation that Christ has provided? Are we preaching and teaching people into the kingdom, but then leaving them standing – exposed to the elements of the “isms” of our modern world – consumerism, individualism, materialism, narcissism…

I believe that the people of God are to BE a counter cultural movement. As I've said in previous postings, not counter cultural in the sense of criticizing culture, but rather, creating culture. Not counter cultural in the sense of being dogmatic and legalistic about the forms and doctrines and worship styles and appearance of our faith. These things, I think should be held fairly loosely so that they help us to grow up into our calling as Christians. A calling, by the way, to be the incarnational presence of the servant Christ in a world that often ignores or even despises him.

A Jesus broke down walls and erased lines of division. Sometimes it seems that we're so set on making sure that only the people who think and act like us "get in" - to our churches, our lives, our "mission" - that we stop growing ourselves and spend all of our time tending and mending fences of exclusion.

For me, it's pretty simple. The foundation is our relationship with Christ, who describes himself as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). The spiritual rebar is the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self control. But the other thing is that the life that we build and LIVE is a communal life - a life of relationship and fellowship, of koininia. We're not on our own in this. We are part of a family, a movement, a wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people who want to live according to the principles and norms and values of the kingdom. No need for lines or walls or gatekeepers. We are a people on the way.

And the way is marked by simplicity and faith and justice and generosity and vulnerability and hope and transparency and genuine love, one for another. It is, as the bible says, a narrow way (Matthew 7:14), but by no means an exclusive way.

Is this what our society sees in us? Is this the kind of reputation that our churches have in our communities? We may be despised and persecuted for our faith, but it shouldn't be because we are drawing lines of exclusion or defending our rights or criticizing public policy and public officials. God calls us to trust in Him and to live our lives the way Jesus taught us to - as servants. In the end, people turned on Jesus, not because he criticized or condemned them, but because he loved them and they did not understand his love.

These are exciting days to BE the people of God!